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Published: January 13th 2016
The lead up to our adventure in the Cuybeno Reserve was nothing short of painful. After enduring a late night (made bearable by the hospitality of Gina, her husband and his delicious spiced tequila) we rushed onto an overnight bus to Lago Agrio which we reached earlier than expected (3am) in a location that was definitely not their central bus terminal as we had hoped. We staggered down the street eventually finding a bus stop right next to the Hotel where we would later meet our tour group. Now Lago Agrio is not somewhere any sane person wants to be during daylight but sitting at a bus stop in the dark pretending to wait for a nonexistent bus in an effort to look less conspicuous and therefore less of a target, all the while hoping that the reputation for being a dodgy and likely place to get mugged was untrue.
As the sun rose a friendly, slightly inebriated inhabitant of Lago Agrio forced a very non-compliant hotelier to allow us to wait in their foyer. I strongly suspect that if not for the help of this person we would have been left outside the hotel indefinitely. These suspicions were further
confirmed as the morning progressed. Our Lago Agrian trials were not over yet as we encountered the first of several difficulties which I will refer to (un)happy gringo moments in memory of the dreadful customer service related to the tour operators we had booked our trip with.
· (un)happy gringo moment 1: no breakfast was provided to us at the extremely unwelcoming hotel despite this being paid for and stated on our itinerary. Tommy endeavoured to fix this issue firstly by showing the inhospitable hotel manager our itinerary and then by making a phone call to Happy Gringo. This did not go well. The call became particularly terse when Tommy was told by the agency that the itinerary was an old version and that breakfast was in actual fact not available to us. We were treated like dirt by the hotel and by the agency and fuming we left the hotel in search of low cost street food.
• (un)happy gringo moment 2: we returned to the hotel to discover it had become a a hot bed of tourists who had all booked with various agencies and were visiting a variety of lodges within the Cuybeno Reserve. This
is the moment where I began to suspect that Cuybeno Reserve was not the untainted animal filled wilderness that happy gringo had led us to believe and in fact every word regarding this was in fact a lie. (Have I mentioned that I heartily DO NOT recommend the Happy Gringo tour agency?)
• (un)happy gringo moment 3: we were all packed tight into a small school bus with no airconditioning or comfort of any sort (another lie from Happy Gringo.. comfortable bus to the reserve my bottom!) eventually arriving a couple of hours later to the chaos of entering the reserve.
Eventually the gaggle of tourists were separated into the correct groups for the many different lodges after which we boarded motorized canoes for the first enjoyable moment of the entire experience, the ride down the river to Samona Lodge. As we sped down the river, deeper and deeper into the jungle our guide pointed out several varieties of monkeys and many birds. We also made friends with two lovely Americans who shared our canoe. We arrived and were welcomed by the friendly staff at the beautiful Samona Lodge exhausted but hopeful that things were looking up. After
a short rest and a delicious lunch of fresh fish we boarded the canoe along with several other visitors to the lodge for our first experience of Laguna Grande.
As the sun set and a pink dolphin briefly surfaced the opportunity rose for a swim. While the rest of the canoe debated the wisdom of taking the plunge I jumped into the water, first in. The water was heavenly and I reveled in the coolness as a sense of calm descended upon me. Others including Tommy seeing my enjoyment of the water joined me and we swam and floated in circles around the canoe until the sun set in red, gold and orange streaks across the tree filled horizon, paradise. Refreshed we clambered into the canoe and made our way to a landing near the jungle. Where like a clumsy procession of black poncho clad monks we stumbled through the jungle in search of night life. We found many examples of this. Spiders were in great supply as were frogs. We found the middle of the world (equator) and then trying hard not to fall over or step on any of the aforementioned remarkable wildlife we made our way
back to the canoe and the lodge as thunder boomed and rainclouds rolled in. Walter, our guide explained that the jungle was a dangerous place to be at night in the middle of a storm as falling trees were a distinct possibility.
The shhhhhh of the rain in the jungle is truly magical and as it soothed us to sleep I reflected on the beauty of the reserve and how fortunate we were to experience everything we had that evening.
The memories of our first evening helped me through some of the more disappointing elements of the Cuybeno experience. Our visit to the local indigenous community was not as advertised. The people there live a modern life except for when they don costumes to show gullible tourists “village life”. Now this would be fine if there was honesty about this being how things were however I felt quite disillusioned on the whole although I have to say that the experience was not a complete loss as I learned how to make Yuca bread and after a sweltering walk through the community banana plantation (“jungle”) enjoyed visiting an incredible old tree that was far to big to hug and
so big that it was impossible to photograph in its entirety.
The disappointments were thick and fast that day as our search for anaconda in the evening was ruined by the enormous amount of shouting tour groups all scrambling loudly over themselves to see the famed reptile who terrorized by their disgusting behavior slipped quickly into the water never to be seen again. Sickened to the core by the lack of respect shown to this magnificent animal and disappointed that I was not able to even catch a glimpse of it due to the incredibly heavy tourism in the reserve and the selfish behavior of the tourists I slouched back in the canoe fervently wishing that I had not wasted my money on this experience.
Our lovely guide sensing the despondency of the group redoubled his efforts to find other wildlife and we had the wonderful experience of meeting two young caimen as we ventured back to the lodge. (Our tour group was quietly respectful of the wildlife.)
The rest of our stay consisted of delicious food at times enjoyed at times enjoyed under the benign gaze of two tarantulas. (Yes they are as big
as you imagine and no they are not aggressive in any way. In fact they are kind of sweet for spiders!) We had lots of opportunities to enjoy the lagoon and experienced another highlight one morning: paddling a canoe through the river for an entire morning. It was peaceful and we saw an incredible array of bird life. For me it was absolute bliss. We also learned about the medicinal plants within the forest and tasted quinine bark (treatment for malaria. Very convenient as many of us had by this point been thoroughly snacked upon by the local insect life!) We thoroughly enjoyed to company of our new friends Liz and Mel as well as the company of our guide Walter.
Our final day arrived along with a host of mixed emotions. Samona Lodge is great especially if you love bird watching and monkeys. (We were very fortunate to see a wide variety of these). Our guide Walter was friendly , informative and spoke excellent English. He went out of his way to ensure that we enjoyed our stay and saw a wide variety of wildlife. Unfortunately the enormous amount of tourism made his job extremely difficult and many
Tuppence preparing Yucca to make Bread
after this it needed to be rung out. This was done in a similar fashion to squeezing the water from a towel.
of the animals advertised by Happy Gringo as being in the reserve were not seen by us. Do not go to Cuybeno expecting to see Jaguar, Tapir or Sloths. They have retired deeper into the jungle in response to the large number of people invading their space. Don’t go to Cuybeno with the expectation that you will be guaranteed to see Anaconda or Pink River Dolphins. Seeing them is a privilege and if you are lucky enough to see these wild animals treasure it as their appearances are becoming increasingly fewer as tourism levels increase.
Recommendations for the trip if you choose to make it are:
• Book directly with the lodge. Cut out the middle men such as Happy Gringo who will lie to you in order to extract as much money from you as possible. They are dollar hungry pirates undeserving of your hard earned cash.
• Do not EVER book with Happy Gringo
• Expect that some activities will reflect the history of jungle life rather than how it is now.
• Laguna Grande is stunning and the variety of birdlife is outstanding. If you enjoy bird watching Cuybeno is for you.
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